unsendables

Where do we put our words that have nowhere to go? Sometimes we let them fly, either via speech or through the (too?) numerous other outlets we have readily available at our disposable — many of them instantaneous in delivery when wait time may be the prudent course. I remember one incident during graduate school when a friend of mine, out of love for me and in a protective move, had written a note of encouragement intended for my eyes only but that found it’s way to the person who was being obliquely maligned in the note. Of course, this unintentional blunder found its way back to me and I took two lessons to heart: the need to develop artful re-framing skills and the related art of silence; some causes of frustration, like fires, are best fought with a deprivation of oxygen.

But some things cry out for an audience, any audience. One such outlet might be Unsendable.com — 17 pages of letters, notes, missives of unrequited love, anger, hurt, whimsy, and more at have been collected and curated into an ongoing collection that I can’t stop reading. That human beings hurt — become hurt and hurt one another — is not surprising, but encountering yet another account of hurt never ceases to have a sobering effect. (I’m fighting the urge to break out into a bad impression of Michael Stipe from my seated position at the local tea cafe, so instead I’ll just point out that he and his ex-bandmates were right: “Everybody Hurts.”) And in the spirit if full disclosure I will admit that a few did make me laugh…

untitled fiction – part 4

a continuation of a story first introduced here (including disclaimer info).

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Part 4

Jana was understandably tired. She maintained a practice of standing or pacing while talking to Bernie. To sit would only allow the frustration to fester and build without an outlet. But with her growing belly, where all twenty-two of the pregnancy weight she had put on had landed, both pacing and standing took a toll after a short while. As she listened to her mother describe other things she had discovered in the “1997” boxes, Jana rested her hand gently on the top of her protruding mid-section. She was due in three months and her mother had no idea that she would soon be a grandmother. As if on cue, she felt a flutter emanate from deep inside her gut.

When Jana was six, her mother had “the public nightmare.” At the age of 48, in the middle of a Sheraton lobby, Bernie let out a blood-curdling scream and cried out, “So help me god, if this is a baby and not a tumor, I will kill you!” It was almost exactly two years before the day Jana would withhold candy from her diabetic mother, and it was the first time she started to see how other people saw her mother. They were in Las Vegas for a convention; actually, Bernie had brought Jana there because she had heard that a furrier convention was scheduled and since Bernie had never met an actual furrier, she thought it was about time. So, off they went, in March and during the week that everyone else in Jana’s class was taking the statewide reading and math tests, in search of people who shot, killed, and skinned animals for their fur.

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and that’s all folks! that’s as far as I got last year. it was slow going, but fun doing. I may pick it up again because I want to know what happens with these two…

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

untitled fiction – part 3

a continuation of a story first introduced here (including disclaimer info).

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Part 3

I didn’t realize I had sighed out loud until I heard my mother on the end of line other mock me with an exaggerated sigh of her own. “Hmphhhhhhhh… Sheesh, what’s eating you? I just asked you a simple question.” But that’s just it, Bernice, I wanted to say, it’s never simple with you.

“Was that it, or was there something else? You don’t have another bombshell to drop on me, do you?”

It was the question she had asked me five minutes ago and four minutes ago I had said “yes.” But I couldn’t go on. She thought the fact that I was planning a trip to a town near where she lived and *might* visit her was a bombshell announcement. How was she going to react to the litany of life changing decisions that would be unleashed if I said the one thing that would change everything. It’s not like she actually really new me, but I had done a good job of maintaining enough distance to fit the impression she had formed in her mind over the years. Layers and layers of false memories and incorrect assumptions and childlike fantasies that had been painted onto any realistic image of *me* until I wasn’t there anymore. Just an imperfectly manicured, fuzzy painting of angry brushstrokes of hair battles, streaked with tears of frustration and later regret (hers, not mine), and torn in places where i had tried to break out. Ultimately I had just settled on lying. It was easier to pretend to be the fuzzy picture than to have to suggest that I might be a photograph, in sepia tones, and not primary colors at all.

12:09. I had just been on the phone for 8 minutes and already it felt like a lifetime. It was like this every time. If I didn’t call her, I would never hear from her. Why wasn’t that ok with me? Why couldn’t I conjure up the 13-year-old me who had spent the year speaking in only Portuguese? And made no eye contact with Bernice. It wasn’t as hard as it seemed. She hardly looked at me anyway. She was always trying to find herself. Find where she belonged, and reveling in placing herself in situations where she didn’t belong. At the center of someone else’s birthday party. In a suit. At a parent-teacher conference. It was as if she was most alive when she was making herself fit where it most seemed possible. And damn her, it didn’t always fail.

I could almost picture her, wearing something yellow and sitting on her bright blue rocking chair on the porch of the little clay roof cottage she had bought just outside of Santa Fe almost eleven years ago. I couldn’t remember what color the rest of the house was, but the chair was burned into my memory. Each time I would visit her, she would ask me to apply another coat of paint to the chair. Always the same bright blue – she called it Sonny’s Blue. Only years later would I understand this is as the last vestige of her former self, one that read Baldwin, Hurston and Emerson, enjoyed Mahler and Ellington, and wondered about the world enough to want to do something that meant something. That Bernice and I would have been friends.

Before I could go on, I heard her say on the other end of the line, “Open your email. Don’t ask why, just do it now.” There was an attachment. Of course. No contact for months, and now an attachment. I just wanted to have a five minute conversation. But now I had an attachment. It was a photo, taken with Bernice’s cell phone camera so it was quite grainy. It looked like a brown grocery bag.

“You’re welcome!” she bellowed from inside the phone. “I found a bunch of crap you asked me for when I was cleaning out the boxes marked ‘1997’ so I shipped it to you. “ The “crap” referred to a list I had sent her as a letter when I was away at camp during high school – no doubt another thing she had kept and found in this mess of 1997.

Where was this bag of crap going to go? Yet another thing that Bernie pushed onto my life for which I didn’t have the emotional or physical space. What would it be like to think of my mother as my mother, and not as some alien life form that occasionally flitted into and out of my life.

Imagine a scene:

Sitting on a park bench, two women who were clearly mother and daughter, both with heads of luscious hair, one almost completely silver and the other with just the slightest hints of grey. The mother in complementary shades of grey — a cowl neck sweater that hit at her hip, a not-too-flowy skirt of lightweight wool that swirled around her knees, and steel grey patent leather pumps — highlighted by a carefully chosen rose pink cashmere shawl, worn as a scarf. Her daughter, equally minimalistic in her boot cut jeans in the perfect shade of blue-black falling perfectly over her mahogany, wedge-heel boots that were buttery soft and gleamed in the warmth of the late October sun, a crisp button down shirt in shade of dusty rose that invited touch; and presumably for warmth on this perfect autumn day, a thin, cashmere tank top peeking out from underneath her shirt, in palest shade of pink that it looked almost white – almost. Eileen Fisher couldn’t have painted a more ideal portrait of estrogen compatibility.

Mother in grey: I think you were right about drinking warm tea while reading Tolstoy! I was transported – like I was there with Anna.

Daughter in boots: I can’t wait until you finish — it’s almost the end of December and my Anna itch needs scratching!

Mother in grey: Patience. I wish I could tell you about this new case. All I can say is that we need a new conversation in this country. These kids that I see just want someone to hear what they’re saying. Baldwin turns in his grave, I’m sure, when he sees and hears what this country is doing. It’s strange to be reading him alongside Tolstoy – but also strangely symbiotic.

Daughter in boots: You’re too nice sometimes, mom. The world isn’t like that when the kids go back into it. But I know you can’t be different, and thank goodness for that. Did you go back to “The Fire Next Time”?


End of scene.

And on and on it would go, sharing texts, hearing one about each other’s work, raising questions. This is not a daily event – more regular than a conversation once every four or five months, but not so frequent that it dissolves into the inanity shared by close friends, some sisters, even the occasional interaction between strangers who share laugh about an unfortunately worded advertisement in the subway or something equally inconsequential.

This is a relationship that is respectful, attentive, evolving. But instead I was part of something – did it qualify as a relationship? – in which one person (Bernice, always Bernice) dumped baggage, literally, onto another’s (mine, always mine) life. Today brought the promise of a grocery bag full of sewing notions, pressed flowers, a stethoscope, a waffle iron, a collection of paint chips; what was my 15-year-old self thinking??

I can only hope she had the sense to put it all in a box so that I could take it directly from my porch to the Goodwill drop off center.

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Part 4 en route…

Part 1
Part 2

untitled fiction – part 2

a continuation of a story first introduced here (including disclaimer info).

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Part 2

As Jana held the phone to her ear with her left hand, while she tried to peel a banana with her right, she wondered whether she could have predicted this moment.  The moment when she would have to tell the truth in order to cover up a lie.  No, she had not dropped out of school.  But yes, she was going to have a baby.  Could she bring herself to say those words to a woman who had made it plain to her daughter for 28 years — 23 of which were clear in memories; she had blocked out year 8, most of 12-14, and understandably had limited recall of her first year — that she never really wanted to be a mother?  Someone would hardly have to ask about Jana’s birth or even make the slightest mention that they were mother and daughter before Bernice — or “Just call me Bernie, like my dad” — would launch into an unnecessarily harrowing tale of how Jana had entered this world: unexpectedly, on a stormy night, surrounded by strangers, and to a woman who thought she was well past child-bearing age.  “It’s why I never got married,” Bernie would say, often with a martini glass in her hand — there wasn’t always a martini inside.  Sometimes it would be wine, other times juice, and at dinner when Jana was younger and her mother would insist that she drink milk with her meal Bernie would drink hers out of that garnet martini glass.  Thinking about that made Jana smile; she quickly corrected her expression when she caught her face in the mirror and remembered this moment.  This moment was the one in which she would tell Bernie that contrary to what she had said the last time they had talked, which was over two months ago when Jana went to visit her mother for an afternoon, she had not quit graduate school and that she was still quite intent on completing her training as a clinical psychologist.  And not only that, she was pregnant.  And this was the moment she was dreading.  If she gave her mother this piece of information, then the impenetrable wall she had built around her would become weakened.  To tell Bernie that she was, herself, going to become a mother, meant that she was inviting in questions about her life that Jana was not prepared to share.  Jana didn’t want her mother to know that not only had she not followed her advice to “stay single for as long as you can, or at least until you are 35,” she had been in a monogamous relationship with her partner for more than six years.

No, she would simply say that she didn’t know who the father was.  That was something that Bernie could wrap her head around without fear of too much damage to her sense of self.

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part 3 – coming soon…

untitled fiction – part 1

note & disclaimer: while i’m away on my very silent, devoid of communication, meditation retreat, the magical powers of the future scheduling function will allow me to roll out piecemeal my first attempt since college, i think, at writing a piece of (unfinished, unedited, unrefined) fiction. i was inspired by last year’s nanowrimo (that i learned about from the lovely t), during which these words were penned. until now, i’ve been the sole creator and audience of this loopy tale (as sole as one who has lived in the world, had conversations and experiences with people, and carries those moments around, some of which are sure to seep into other moments, conversations, experiences, and writing). but i plan to attempt nanowrimo once again this november so clearing this out of the mental hopper might be a good idea. the disclaimer is that none of this is based in my lived reality with the exception of the very first line that i once said in response to a question someone asked me under very different and far less complicated circumstances. so in a way this is both an attempt to fulfill kesey’s invitation to write what i don’t know (see top of this blog) and ebert’s advice to think about what i’ve seen and how it affected me and not fake it. the acts of writing this and then rereading it a few days ago for the first time in nearly a year also echo the truisms about writing that some readers have generously noted in their comments on this blog, including writing as retreat, as source of both pain and elation.

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Part 1

“What would you do if I said yes?”

I hadn’t rehearsed the line; it just came out.

I hadn’t planned on lying to her, so i guess this was just penance. Just penance indeed. It didn’t seem fair that she would get her way again, so what could i do but lie.

Was it a lie if half of it was true? And more importantly, why had I felt l couldn’t tell her the truth.  Or, perhaps more momentously, that I could even bring myself offer some of the truth?

We hadn’t always had the best relationship, my mother and I.  I usually couldn’t go two days without thinking about something awful she had done — some social crime or faux pas she had committed — that I was still cleaning up today.  The lime green dress she had worn to my best friend’s father’s funeral when I was twelve. Her insistence on accompanying me to my after-school program that was only a short, ten block walk from my school, and then complaining that she had to leave work early to do it.  The birthday parties she threw for me, despite my protests, with wildly inappropriate games planned: a) what color would your flame be if you were on fire? (the winner was usually the person who could make my mom laugh the most); b) “smell this”, where she had my friends smell what almost always was rotting or moldly food in her fridge to determine both its fate (stay or trash?) and its origin (are you sure this used to be an orange?) – there were no winners for this game; c) pin the tale on the goldfish — there are no words, only memories of innocent fish swimming out of fear of stabbing-by-thumbtack.

So I lied. They weren’t always earth shattering lies.  Just conveniently placed half-truths that allowed the really big whoppers to seem as normal as auburn leaves on a cool, November day.  The first time I lied, I wasn’t sure what I was really doing.  I just knew that it felt good to swear that I had no more M&Ms left to share with her — my mother is diabetic and occasionally needed a quick sugar fix because, of course, she routinely “forgot” to take her pills.  At the age of eight I didn’t have a full grasp of the consequences of sugar highs and insulin lows and vice versa.  But I’m pretty sure I knew I was doing something just a little cruel. And as I watched my mother’s arms flail progressively more rapidly as she tried to keep her concentration on the road in front of her, I felt a rush of warmth wash over me.  I would soon come to be addicted to this sensation — one of power and control over circumstances, another person’s life.

But this isn’t one of those “my mother and I were enemies and now we’re friends” stories.  Nor is it a harrowing tale of the pain and suffering I’ve endured as my mother’s daughter.  No, this is just a retelling, in parts, of a woman on a quest to find her mother. Because surely there’s no way I crawled out of that woman’s vagina.

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Stay tuned for part 2…

tx for thxthxthx

dear a,

thanks for reminding about the very wonderful site alreadypretty, which i had forgotten to check out for a while. your reminder came at the exact right time because i learned of another fantastic site from today’s post: thxthxthx – a thank you note a day. such a simple, fantastic, humble, and appreciative idea. for your uncanny sense of timing, i am ever grateful.

xo,
sos

to come alive

‎”Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

-Howard Thurman

i have never been happier to receive a workbook than i was this evening when i once again became a student in a french class, something i haven’t been or done in over 18 years. that was the last time i was actively learning french in a classroom, was assigned french homework, was being taught by monsieur v who allowed us to choose our ‘french’ names — a practice that seemed purely enjoyable at the time but that now gives me pause and makes me wonder whether i would have experienced my french classes differently if i had chosen the name marguerite or genevieve or josephine instead of denise, which mme. w, in her oh-so-french ways pronounced with full french flair when i was a mere eighth grader. and so it stuck. and i was denise — or, du-neez — for the duration of middle and high school french.

but tonight i was simply me, no pseudonym, sitting in a class with da-VEED and ni-NAH and our teacher for at least the first two classes, MAH-ree-Lor, qui est parisienne et a habite en philadelphie pendant douze ans. actually, i might have used a “pendant” when i should have used a “pour” or an “il y a”, but that is what i am hoping to remember and figure out over the next few months.

when i walked into the alliance francaise, i wasn’t expecting much more than information about when classes start. i had assumed that they had already started and that i would be playing a bit of catch up. but when i arrived, mlle. r pointed me out to mme. m who began a placement test tout de suite! and before i knew it, it was the end of my senior year in college all over again (when, without having spoken or written french with or for anyone other than myself for four years, i am proud to say that i passed the french proficiency exam that only days before i learned that i would have to take — and pass — in order to graduate with my BA. such is the case when one only gets around to filing the requisite paperwork for switching majors in her second semester of senior year.). so mme. m asked me my name and what i do and why i want to enroll in french classes and what i did last weekend and what i plan to do next weekend — completement en francais, by the way. and so the words came tumbling out of my mouth in clumsy, ill-formed phrases, which sound so lovely and full of francophilic beauty in my head and occasionally in my dreams where some magic fairy must smooth over the rough patches with the proper conjugation and appropriate vocabulary (instead of my insistence on mixing up revenir with retourner and spurting out passe compose when i was searching for the plus que parfait.)

and then, a few minutes after it began, it was over. mme. m had a pleasant look about her, the deep lilac color of her sweater making her seem just a bit sweeter than i suspect she really is. it probably didn’t help that i kept apologizing as i desperately sought the right phrasing in our brief dialogue. in a reflexive moment, i suppose it did give me yet another moment of camaraderie with so many sitting in classes who encounter the dreaded pop quiz — lack of preparedness is a viscerally frightening experience, especially when the reserves we usually draw on in moments of stress or urgency are low. and my french stores were low, if only because the last time i spoke more than three continuous phrases in french to someone was… well, so long ago i truly cannot remember — although, scarily, i suspect it was my “Surprise! you have to pass a language requirement”-french-exam fourteen and half years ago.  mondieu!

mme. m, despite her measured demeanor, was kind toward my performance. she first asked whether i could stay for class tonight. i nodded for several seconds before answering, “yes.” she said that i needed to brush up on my verbs (duh.) but that she would place me in level 202 (intermediate!) and if that worked out, i could stay. otherwise, i could drop down to a lower level (no chance in hell!). it was one of the few times in recent memory when levels and assessment held a great deal of currency. specifically, i was fully aware of being assessed on a consequential scale and appreciated the nervousness that accompanies testtakers, from small children to adults in all manner of settings. simply put, tests are hard.

for the next hour and a half i bathed in the sounds of a french-only dialogue with my two classmates and our temporary teacher, who allowed us to introduce ourselves and ask questions of one another and of her, before we delved into some workbook activities. yes, workbook. and my inner uber-nerd had to be kept at bay as, with each passing minute, i became more and more elated at the fact that i was understanding the words and the phrases and expressions; and even when the exact word wasn’t always within reach, a way of expressing something with the approximate meaning and therefore to be understood was still possible. this wasn’t merely the proverbial getting back on a bicycle; it felt more like entering a local bike race after not having ridden for 20-some-odd years. accepting the initial wobbly legs, time to get used to the feeling of the pedal pushing up against one leg as you push down with the other, the vibrations of the road penetrating your brain through the conduit of your hands, resisting the thought that a fall is imminent as is a crash, and loving it despite the worries. for some reason i have yet to understand, i feel completely at home speaking french — even my to-call-it-rusty-would-be-kind, still-only-communicating-not-composing quality french. in fact, i had to contain myself and resist from hugging and kissing any and all strangers on the street when i left the downtown building, and settled instead on a wide, goofy grin that wouldn’t leave my face even after i arrived at home.

i am, once again, a student of the french language. although if truth be told, i never stopped being one, but as much as i support and advocate for a definition of education that looks beyond the classroom, this and other recent classroom-based learning experiences continue to move me in the ways they invite me to be still, to consider seriously the subject at hand, to embody learning anew.

and following in thurman’s words from the opening epigraph (taken from a gchat away message on t’s profile, a former student, current co-author and friend), a long-dormant part of me certainly came alive tonight… and it’s already taken me to oh, so many wonderful wheres… et encore, je suis joyeux.